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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Balladen, Op.10 (1854) [27:12]
Intermezzi, Op.117 (1892) [17:06]
Klavierstücke, Op.118 (1892) [26:08]
Marc Pantillon (piano)
rec. Salle de Musique, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, 9-11 April 2005. DDD
CLAVES CD 50-2508 [70:34]

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Marc Pantillon’s programme on this CD takes us from very near the beginning of Brahms’ career as a composer to very near the end of it. The four Ballades were written at the age of twenty-one; the three Intermezzi and the six Klavierstücke when Brahms was fifty-nine.

Pantillon gives a finely nuanced performance of the Ballades. The first is Brahms’ response to the Scottish Ballad of “Edward” as translated by Herder, a ballad entirely in dialogue between a mother and the son who has murdered his father. Pantillon brings out very nicely the implied presence of two voices and his articulation of Brahms’ use of staccato and of low bass notes conveys an apt gruesomeness. The altogether more tender emotions of the second Ballade bring out a sensitive inwardness, which is one of Pantillon’s strengths as a pianist, though he also characterises very well the sterner rhythms of the middle section. “What shall we call this? Demoniacal?” – Schumann is reported to have queried of the third Ballade. There is something of the sort in Pantillon’s playing of the opening passages, but he is perhaps most thoroughly convincing in the rather wistful trio. In the final Ballade his articulation of the lengthy lyrical melody and its accompaniment of falling quavers does full justice to the romantic beauty of Brahms’ writing.

In writing the first of the Intermezzi, some thirty-eight years later, Brahms turned once more to Herder and to his versions of Scottish Ballads. This first intermezzo is prefaced by a quotation from Herder’s translation of the Scottish ballad Lady Anne Bothwell’s Lament. Though called a lament – the occasion of grief being her husband’s absence at the wars and her dream of his death – the ballad’s words are actually in the form of a lullaby. Pantillon brings out very nicely the intrusion of the mother’s anxiety – in a section in E flat minor – while retaining the overall sense of maternal affection and consolation. The second intermezzo also has an air of unease, against an embracing background of calmness – Pantillon does calmness very well! The third intermezzo is somewhat darker, a mood of plaintive mournfulness, with only occasional glimpses of light. Pantillon’s capacity for an expressive softness is striking here.

The opus 118 set contains some of Brahms’ very finest writing for solo piano. The opening intermezzo in A minor is an exuberant, vigorous piece; the closing intermezzo in E flat minor is profoundly sad, both dramatic and hushed, disturbing and perhaps a little disturbed. In between, there is the graciousness and delicate charm of the intermezzo in A major, the rhythmically forceful Ballade in G minor, the complex and ambiguous intermezzo in F minor and the melodic, idyllic Romanze in F major. The whole is surely one of the great suites of piano music. Over the years it has had memorable performances from, for example, Julius Katchen, Radu Lupu and Dmitri Alexeev. I am not sure that Marc Pantillon’s performance is quite in that class but it is certainly very fine, intelligent and considered, richly inward and full of conviction. It is a performance that rewards relistening and will, I am sure, bear many future hearings.

In the opus 118 Klavierstücke and elsewhere, Pantillon is at his very best in the more ruminative passages, where a sense of rapt tranquillity is expressed in playing of great limpidity and tenderness. Where greater power and volume is needed, it would be unfair to say that he is lacking, but true to say that he isn’t quite as gripping. His tempi are generally on the slow side, but everything coheres and the musical tension never flags.

Very good, individual and interesting performances which deserve to find many listeners. They have the benefit of a superb recorded sound.

Glyn Pursglove



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